Do Herbal Health Products Really Work?

Which of the growing number of herbal products on shelves actually works, and how do consumers choose wisely? Professor Patrick J D Bouic, of the University of Stellenbosch, reports:


The biggest challenge facing any consumer who has been recommended a ‘wonder product’ for a particular medical condition is when he/she enters a health food store or a pharmacy: before them, on numerous shelves, are rows upon rows of products, all making the same claims. Which product will really address their ailment? Which one is truly researched and safe and has been clinically tested? The market size of complimentary products is fast growing in South Africa: in North America and Europe, this industry has become regulated and no product may be exhibited on shelves unless its safety and clinical efficiency have been demonstrated. This has yet to occur in South Africa; the Medicines Control Council has yet to formally regulate the industry to ensure patient safety and beneficial outcomes. The White Paper for this regulation has been finalized but not yet promulgated; until such time as a stricter control is applied to all complementary products, anybody wanting to make a ‘quick buck’ can, with eye-catching marketing material, get a product with the wildest medical claim onto the shelves of outlet stores.


The mere fact that there are so many ‘look alikes’ with no control as to what is mixed into the capsule or tablet is one of the many reasons that many allopathic clinicians do not necessarily believe these wonder cures. They often advise their patients not to make use of these ‘quack’ products; ‘there is no science’ or ‘they may be toxic’ are often the advice offered to the patient. On the other hand, the same clinicians often forget to warn the same patient that many registered prescribed drugs are also toxic if not used correctly or may have side effects which may require further prescription drugs to counteract the unwanted effects of the first. Both practices are dishonest and the naïve patient bears the brunt of confusion.


I have been personally involved in the research behind several South African products and I can proudly say that there are a few ‘local is lekker’ home-grown, clinically shown products. To name but a few:


Immune system enhancers: with one of the fastest growing HIV epidemics in the world, South Africa has seen a flurry of new immune-boosting products marketed locally because they know that there is a captive audience. A mixture of sterols and sterolins (sold as Moducare) developed by multi-disciplinary team at the Tygerberg Hospital/University of Stellenbosch Medical Campus as an immune modulator, has been put through its clinical paces, and yet some companies use our scientific literature to promote their unrelated products. Such a scientifically proven product should never be sold in flea markets as ‘liquid Moducare’.

With the rich and diverse fynbos flora kingdom on our doorsteps, Buchu, the wonder shrub from the Western Cape, was ascribed many medicinal properties by the settlers who inhabited the Cape over 400 years ago. And to date, very little is known about this plant – only recently has intensive research been undertaken by the company Cape Kingdom to prove its potent anti-inflammatory as well as its anti-infective and anti-hypertensive properties.


It worries me, as a scientist, when I read magazines and come face to face with advertorials of products claimed to be able to cure diverse conditions ranging from weight gain to more life-threatening diseases such as diabetes or cancer. How can this unethical practice continue? Can the company substantiate these claims? Has the said product been evaluated? The innocent public does not know any better and when the product speaks to them, they are convinced that it will cure their particular problem. Hopefully with the new legislation, our regulators will put a halt to this type of unscrupulous money-making; until scientifically proven, no go. Our patients deserve better – they need to have access to quality products which are safe and effective.


There is no single mode of health management that is better than the other – the only way is the holistic approach. For too long, the natural way has been seen as ‘alternative’ and this has created an impression that the ‘natural remedy’ practitioners will never meet the opposing allopathic ‘drug prescribing’ practitioners. There is a need for both. If only we could combine both types of practitioners into a single entity. We need to remember that our patients need to be seen as holistic beings and not simply presenting with symptoms for which there is a quick fix.


Test 4 Yourself

How can you make sure that natural products are truly effective in addressing your ailment? There are three golden rules that generally apply:

  • One of Many:Make sure that the product in question is one of many produced by the same company – usually large manufacturers have a wide range of health products. This usually guarantees that strict quality control measures are applied to all products emanating form the company and this ensures that no batch-to-batch variations will be encountered and that the active ingredient is measurable and can be quantified. No reputable manufacturer wants an outside controlling body to discover that every tablet or capsule or milliliter of liquid doesn’t contain exactly what it is meant to contain.


  • Is it Safe?This is more difficult to evaluate. Generally, most products will contain a pamphlet which would provide some overview of the product and the prospectus should stipulate whether any known toxicity has been determined or whether the product can be investigated by everyone. Natural does not equate to safety: be careful, some natural products can be toxic, the same as any drug prescribed by your clinician.


  • Does it work?Any new wonder product, if it has been ethically researched, would be proud to cite published clinical studies. This is where the ‘clever’ marketing comes into play. How many products simply state something along the lines ‘…molecule X has been shown to have anti-aging properties. This product Y contains molecule X’ and leaves you to make the association and assume that product Y will have the desired anti-aging effects? Yet, the manufacturer of the said product has never conducted a single clinical study to be able to prove that particular product has indeed been shown to have the claimed property.


Professor Patrick J D Bouic is from the University of Stellenbosch’s Division of Medical Microbiology in the Department Pathology, Faculty of Health Sciences

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